Decorative Arts


Elevator gatescreen from Chicago Stock Exchange Building, 1894
Louis Henri Sullivan (United States, 1856–1924)
Cast iron with bronze plating
84 x 31 1/4 inches
Gift of the City of Chicago 1963-42-2.2

After the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago immediately began rebuilding; by the 1890s the city was renowned for its architecture, including the new phenomenon of the skyscraper. Steel framing made it possible to build upward on small, expensive city lots without massive areas of masonry for support. Easy and rapid access to the upper floors of tall vertical architecture became practical with the development of elevators. This handsome screen was designed by Louis Sullivan to close off the elevator shafts from the third to the top floor of the 13-story Chicago Stock Exchange. Some of the screens also served as elevator doors. The elevators were replaced in 1960 with high-speed mechanisms, and the building itself was razed in 1972.

The screens were made of wrought, or strap, iron with cast-iron details. The original finish was a blue-black Bower-Barff framed by bronze-plated casings. The kick plates were incised with geometric borders. Although Sullivan is known for exuberant surface ornamentation, the museum's screen is relatively austere and abstract. The design repeats circles and ovals horizontally pinned together. Groups of four "stamens" are attached diagonally to vertical supports. Sullivan's biographer Robert Twombly suggests that the forms represent seed germs giving birth to an eternal circle of life. Sullivan often used metaphorical language in his designs and wrote numerous prose poems about nature's cycles.

In his decorative elevator screens, Sullivan applied to functional objects the deeply felt values he expressed to such perfection in his architecture. Architectural styles and times change, however, and the famed "prophet of modern architecture" died penniless in 1924.

Excerpted text by Claire Huck, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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